What Should Europe Do With the Children of ISIS?

Jul 24, 2017 by

Credit Michelle Thompson

BRUSSELS — The 9-year-old boy didn’t like school. He didn’t like the other children, because he knew what they really were: evil unbelievers who deserved to die. So he did what he was trained to do — he attacked them. He was removed from the building on his first day back.

The boy had spent two years away from his European homeland in a place where counting was taught by the strokes of a whip across a torture victim’s back; where watching public beheadings was part of the school curriculum; where his only role was to be molded into a future jihadi, or a “cub of the Caliphate.” His years in the Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, had turned him into brutalized, radicalized and deeply confused young boy.

He is one of around 5,000 European men, women and children believed to have traveled to Islamic State territory since 2012 to fight with the Islamists or to live under their self-styled caliphate. Now, as they return, most governments are focused on short-term security, ignoring the immense needs of the damaged children.

The boy came home in early 2016 with his mother — a convert to Islam who is now on trial — and found himself in a world he had been trained to hate, where he trusted nothing and no one.

“He felt surrounded by evil people,” said Daniel Koehler, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and a family counselor based in Stuttgart, Germany. “These children are put under constant stress, being told you will burn, you will be tortured if you do not do this — if you do not kill this infidel, you will end up in hell, your mother will end up in hell. It is a constant psychological torture.”s

The boy’s story was recounted to me by Mr. Koehler, who was asked to devise a reintegration strategy after that disastrous attempt to get him back into school. Mr. Koehler would not disclose the Western European country where the boy lives.


A displaced Syrian child and her mother, who fled the countryside surrounding the Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, this month. Credit Bulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It is a very hardened attitude against these individuals,” he said. “Most people would rather see them dead or prosecuted and put behind bars forever. It is an issue that most of the population are completely unaware of — that there are children and that they have no guilt whatsoever.”

Omar Ramadan, the head of the European Union’s Radicalization Awareness Network Center of Excellence, puts the number of European children in Islamic State territory at hundreds, though it is impossible to say for sure. While governments have some data on children who left with their parents, the Islamic State bans contraception, and a woman’s duty is to create the next generation of warriors. When a baby is born under the Islamic State, it enters the world with no nationality. The Islamic State issues birth certificates, but no country recognizes them.

From the age of 4, children start school where they are exposed to a brutal curriculum. “A common counting book would have oranges and apples and then military tanks and guns on the same pages,” said Nikita Malik, a senior research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank where she has studied Islamic State education materials. “The level of their graduation — particularly with boys — depended on their ability to normalize themselves to violence. So to look at a hanging, a public execution, a whipping — the child would be told to count the number of whippings.”

School for girls ends at age 9, when they are considered old enough to marry. At the same age, boys start military training, although they are used even earlier in propaganda videos. One video clip shows a boy of around 4 firing a gun at a prisoner strung up in a children’s play pit.

Jan Kizilhan, a Kurdish-German psychologist, has seen firsthand the damage the Islamic State’s indoctrination can inflict. He treats child soldiers in Iraq and boys from the Yazidi minority who were taken as refugees to Germany after being conscripted by the Islamic State. These children have witnessed rape, torture, murder — in some cases forced to take part in the atrocities themselves.

“Aggression is one of the main problems,” he said, in addition to “nightmares, sleeping problems, concentration, maybe they have some neurological problems,” he says. “I.S. trained them to the lowest empathy.”

Dr. Kizilhan is convinced that it takes a minimum of two years of daily intervention by social workers, psychotherapists, teachers and other professionals to give these children a chance at a normal life. “Those children need security,” he said, “they need stability, and they need orientation.”

But it is not the security of the returned children that worries most governments — it is the security of the state. French and Belgian citizens who spent time with the Islamic State have carried out terrorist attacks in both countries, and the focus for authorities is monitoring ex-fighters for signs that they could sow terror at home, or trying to prevent them returning in the first place. The children caught in the crossfire are simply not a priority.

Governments make no effort to evacuate their citizens from the conflict zone. As Jessika Soors put it: “Who would carry the responsibility when a wolf in sheep’s clothing returns?” Ms. Soors heads the counter-extremism team in the Belgian municipality of Vilvoorde, where at least eight children were born in Islamic State territory to local residents. “Politically it would be difficult to sell to public opinion that as a state you are helping return foreign fighters,” she said.

But those who want to come back will find a way, and policies pandering to fear and prejudice ignore the benefits of an early intervention in the lives of radicalized children, and simply force them into ever more dangerous situations.

Right now, those fleeing the Islamic State risk death or capture, then have to travel through militia-held territory to Turkey. Only when they enter a consulate or embassy of their home country will they receive any assistance. There, the nationality of any child born in Syria or Iraq needs to be confirmed, often through DNA testing. Many children will have mothers and fathers with different nationalities, raising potential custody issues. Once the child is home, one or both parents could be jailed, leaving questions about who should become that child’s guardian. Then the child must re-enter the education system.

These many complexities — and the potential for a surge in returnees as the Islamic State loses control of Raqqa and Mosul, Iraq — demand a nuanced approach and a Europe-wide strategy for dealing with the children. There must be training for teachers and social workers, and clear guidelines on issues like restarting school and who is best placed to care for a child. The policies need to be focused on protection of the child rather than the demonization of the family.

In the past few years, children in execution videos have been the subject of voyeuristic headlines and sensationalist television reports. British tabloids nicknamed one 4-year-old British boy “Jihadi Junior.” European security officials are focused on the possibility that radicalized children could be the next generation of terrorists. A French official has described the youngsters as “ticking time bombs.”

But there’s nothing more dangerous than further stigmatizing these children. For the 9-year-old who attacked his classmates, it was the secure and loving arms of his grandfather, tight around him as they sat in playgrounds, that allowed him to see other children as playmates, not enemies. After a year of careful supervision, he went back to school, and began the process of being a kid again.

Children like him are the innocent victims of war, recognized as such by international law. But when it comes to the war against Islamic State, many people seem to have forgotten this most basic of truths.

Correction: July 24, 2017
A previous version of this article included outdated information about Daniel Koehler. He is a family counselor in Stuttgart, Germany. He is no longer based in Berlin.

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